Communications science & the internet of things


Recently, the University of Dresden confirmed Dr. Sven Engesser to be a professor. Among other things, he’ll be doing research into the Internet of Things (IoT). It’s 2017, there’s nothing unusual about a professorship in IoT. What stands out, though, is the discipline: Sven Engesser is a professor in communication science, which for a long time had somewhat dropped the ball when it came to IoT.

For full disclosure, Sven has been a long-time close friend of mine since we studied together in Berlin. While he pursued a career in academia a did tremendous research into social media and populism as well as climate change media coverage, I went on to work in the private sector as a strategic advisor and researcher in IoT and other emerging technologies.

Now, with his new professorship, I’m delighted to see that Sven will be researching how IoT changes communications, especially interpersonal communications, especially in and around the home. There’s a lot to dig into there: How do connected devices change how we communicate with each other and the built environment? What do personal assistants like Amazon Echo, Google Home, and Siri mean for the gatekeeper function to information? There are many, many questions worth pondering, and nobody better suited to do so.

As far as I can tell, communications sciences haven’t really dealt much with IoT. When I studied communication science at Freie Universität Berlin, I still had to struggle to even get an internet angle into my studies. This got better towards the end of my masters, as I had more freedom to choose my own subjects. (My final thesis examined the role of weblogs for the role of political journalists in Germany, ca. 2006. Spoiler: In Germany, they played practically no role at all, unlike in the US.) It was too early for IoT, of course, but I don’t think that IoT was covered much even since.

It don’t think it was always that way. Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) was, I believe, a hot area for communication studies and social theory for a long time, back to the 1960s. Then, with the advent of the internet, comms science seemed to zoom in on how the internet transformed media—meaning mass media, or the fracturing of the “mass” aspect due to personalized media consumption. But I digress.

I’m sure there is a slew of researchers from a comms sciences background pouring into this field, and I couldn’t be happier. This is a discipline that has a lot to add to this conversation, and a voice that needs to be heard besides all the computer scientists, interaction designers, and MBAs.

Personally I’m also very happy that Sven invited me to speak at one of the first sessions of his new fall/winter semester lectures on communications and IoT at Dresden University, where if logistics work out I’ll be chatting a bit about the practitioner’s side of IoT.

There’s a whole generation of comms science students who I hope I can give some relevant pointers to issues worthy of their research efforts: Responsible IoT, good data practices, inclusion & diversity, the gender angles of personal assistants, and dynamics of power & control in centralized networked services come to mind; there are many more.